In his Wednesday night debate with Sen. Kamala Harris, Vice President Mike Pence repeatedly misrepresented, and often simply lied about, President Donald Trump’s record on the coronavirus. Here’s what Pence said and how we know he’s not telling the truth.
1. Equipment. Pence blamed former President Barack Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden for the shortage of masks, ventilators, and other equipment that Trump faced when the virus arrived this year. “They left the Strategic National Stockpile empty,” said Pence, adding that the Trump administration “learned from” their mistakes. That’s bull. Obama left Trump thousands of ventilators, and Trump—far from stocking up—squeezed the budget for pandemics. Trump also cut the staff who would deal with such a crisis, calling them unnecessary. He later said he hadn’t refilled the stockpile because “I have a lot of things going on.”
2. Travel. Pence boasted that Trump “suspended all travel from China” in January. That’s not true, either. Thanks to exemptions in Trump’s order, almost 40,000 people traveled from China to the United States in the next two months. Forensic analysis later determined, with 95 percent certainty, that the “founding virus” of the outbreak that swamped Washington state arrived from China between Feb. 7 and Feb. 19.
3. Deception. “China and the World Health Organization did not play straight with the American people,” Pence charged. “They did not let our personnel into China to get information on the coronavirus until the middle of February.” But on Feb. 10, Trump said just the opposite. “China, I can tell you, is working very hard. We’re working with them,” Trump assured Americans in a Fox News interview. “We just sent some of our best people over there, World Health Organization. And a lot of them are composed of our people.” The president went on: “They’re now in China. And we’re helping ‘em out. We’re in very good shape.” Either Trump was lying when he said that, or Pence is lying now. (Trump also played down the virus long after the WHO sounded the alarm.)
4. Mitigation. Pence said Trump saved lives by “shutting down roughly half of the American economy” when “medical experts” urged him to do so “in the second week of March.” But up to that point, Trump resisted mitigation, with catastrophic results. On Feb. 26, Trump threatened to fire Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, for suggesting mitigation. On March 9, he tweeted that nothing should be shut down. Researchers estimate that the delay in mitigation from March 1 to March 15 caused more than 50,000 deaths.
5. Projections. To justify the 210,000 fatalities Trump has allowed so far, Pence claimed that in March, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, projected a possible U.S. death toll of “more than 200,000,” even “if we did everything right.” No, they didn’t. At a White House briefing on March 31, Birx said the upper end of the plausible range was 200,000, and she specified that the projected estimate of 100,000 to 200,000 deaths was based on “not assuming” that Americans did “everything that they’re supposed to be doing.” Birx added, “We can do a lot better than that.”
6. Negligence. Pence brushed off a question about the Sept. 26 White House celebration for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett. During the celebration, Trump, Pence, and other Republicans had flouted every health rule—dozens of guests, no masks, no social distance—resulting in numerous infections. “It was an outdoor event, which all of our scientists regularly and routinely advise,” Pence claimed during the debate. That’s a deeply dishonest answer. Most of the celebration took place indoors, and pictures show that Trump and other attendees flouted the rules there as well.
7. Money. Pence said the administration was doing everything possible to get people through financial hardships caused by the virus. “We literally have spared no expense to help the American people and the American worker through this,” he insisted. That’s a ludicrous howler. The day before the debate, Trump announced that he had told Senate Republicans to “stop negotiating” on an aid package and “to instead focus full time on approving” Barrett. “Our Economy is doing very well,” Trump declared. “The Stock Market is at record levels.” On Wednesday morning, hours before the debate, Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, reaffirmed that “the stimulus negotiations are off.”
8. Vaccines. Pence even lied about what happened in the debate. After Harris talked about coronavirus vaccinations, he said it was “unconscionable” of her to “continue to undermine public confidence in a vaccine if the vaccine emerges during the Trump administration.” But the transcript shows that Harris expressed full confidence in a vaccine—“I’ll be the first in line to take it, absolutely”—if it was recommended by Fauci and other “public health professionals” in the administration, rather than by Trump alone.
Trump has lied all along about the virus and how he dealt with it. Against the background of the president’s recklessness, Pence has been a voice of relative sanity. But with the election bearing down on him, and a record he can’t honestly defend, the vice president has decided that honesty must go.
Support our 2020 coverage
Slate is covering the election issues that matter to you. Support our work with a Slate Plus membership. You’ll also get a suite of great benefits.Join Slate Plus